Kristin Moseley Professor Hooks English 101 20 July 2009 The Scarlet Letter: Literary Criticism Published in 1850, The Scarlet Letter is considered Nathaniel Hawthorne’s most famous work, and the first quintessentially American novel in style, theme, and language. Set in seventeenth-century Puritan Massachusetts, the novel centers around the travails of Hester Prynne, who gives birth to daughter Pearl after an adulterous affair. Hawthorne’s novel concerns the consequences of the affair, rather than the affair itself.
Hawthorn uses Hester’s public shaming as a springboard to explore the lingering taboos of Puritan New England during his time; furthermore, the novel raises issues that are just as controversial today as they were then. Nathaniel Hawthorne, a critically acclaimed American writer of the nineteenth century, was born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1804. The novelist’s book, The Scarlet Letter, is said to be his most commendable work, and universally considered a literary classic, pertaining to sin and its inherent consequences.
Some speculate Hawthorne’s work related to his own personal sense of shame regarding his ancestors’ persecuting roles in the seventeenth century Salem Witch Trials, and his views pertaining to a woman’s role in society (Baym 49-70; Answers Corp. , “Duyckinck”). By indirectly dealing with his sense of guilt through fictional circumstances, he shows his viewpoint as being highly critical of the Puritans, while teaching a strong moral lesson in the process. Graduating in the middle of his class from Bowdoin College in 1825, he went on to write a variety of novels, short stories, and articles.
Generally, his writing contained powerful symbolic and psychological aspects of, “the effects of pride, guilt, sin, and secrecy” (Encarta Encyclopedia). In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne brought to life Hester Prynne, a beautiful, yet headstrong, Puritan woman married to an elderly husband for which she held no love, and was forced by him, Roger Chillingworth, to travel alone to America to prepare for his arrival. Shortly thereafter, Hester was informed that, unfortunately, her husband had not survived the perilous journey to the New World, leaving her all alone in an unforgiving, indifferent society.
Two years after Hester was informed that her husband had perished on his journey, the community discovered a chilling fact: Hester’s pregnancy. In the callous, unyielding society which she now found herself, with no friends to speak of, save for her male lover, she was now in blasphemous disrespect of Puritan law. Sentenced to jail for an undisclosed period of time, Hester gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, which she named Pearl, and upon her release was sentenced to wear a scarlet A on her chest for the next seven years to remind herself and her fellow townspeople of her adulterous sin.
Many years later, her lover was revealed to be Reverend Dimmesdale, the town’s preacher. By the end of events, both Chillingworth and Dimmesdale were dead of natural causes, Hester having outlived them both, all the while displaying unwavering strength and courage. One of the most influential critics of his day, Evert Duyckinck, called the tale a, “psychological romance… , a study of character in which the human heart is anatomized, carefully, elaborately, and with striking poetic and dramatic power” (Answers Corp. , “Duyckinck”).
In order to grasp the loneliness and scorn Hester Prynne endured, one must understand the premise of Puritan religion. Puritanism was a loosely organized reform movement that originated during the English Reformation of the sixteenth century. The name was derived from the efforts to “purify” the Church of England by those who felt the Reformation had not yet been completed. Because the Puritans believed they were working for a divine cause, there was little room for compromise, and punishments for ungodly behavior were often swift and harsh.
Free-thinkers, or those questioning “God’s work”, which was what the Puritans claimed to be doing, were not tolerated, and were believed to be the gateway to anarchy; pure chaos would surely have taken hold if open-minded blasphemers were not punished posthaste. In the 1600s the colonies enforced “blue laws”, laws that were based on scripture, and in many instances were punishable by death. Members of Puritan society could be hanged for simply disrespecting one’s mother or father, or taking the Lord’s name in vain.
Any Puritan caught breaking a blue law, or any law, could always escape punishment, even death, if the accused publicly confessed any wrong doing; admitting one’s crime, and expressing remorse was certainly better than the noose. Of course, this act often involved the accusation of another (Ushistory. org, Puritan Life). While confession may have offered wrong-doers a reprieve, for the prideful, independent, often times innocent free-thinkers, like Hester Prynne, it may yet have been the worst punishment of all.
Because of the Puritans’ allegorical view of the world, and their place in it, The Scarlet Letter provided Hawthorn with the perfect opportunity to demonstrate one of his best known talents, symbolism. “It has in itself that decorative quality, which he sought in the physical object—the brilliant and rich effect, startling to the eye and yet more to the imagination as it blazes forth with a secret symbolism and almost intelligence of its own” (George E. Woodberry 10. 1). The novel is considered, by readers and critics alike, to be a masterpiece in this sense.
The most blatantly obvious symbol being the letter A that Hester was branded with after her secret affair with Arthur Dimmesdale. The scaffolds, on which Mrs. Prynne was forced to stand upon her release from jail, were a symbol for sin, or penitence. Hawthorn also placed strong emphasis on lighting and color, as made evident in the way the town was portrayed as grey or black, and the forest, a place of happiness for Hester and Pearl, was described as warm, bright, and vibrant (Susan Van Kirk, CliffsNotes on The Scarlet Letter ).
Most novels written in Hawthorn’s time portrayed women as Eve, or Madonna, but Hawthorn did not view women this way, so Hester, like many of Hawthorn’s women, was portrayed as strong, independent, and in the end, triumphant (Barbara Ellis 1). Roy Male, as quoted in Barbara Ellis’s, “Some Observations about Hawthorn’s Women”, states: “In this predominantly masculine enterprise [writing], the role of women has always been anomalous. The notorious ineptitude of the heroine in Western films serves as a constant reminder that in a world of movement in space, a woman was simply an encumbrance.
Her alternatives were to remain behind in the ancestral covered wagon and the squatter’s hut. Without density and … flamboyant marksmanship of Hurricane in the dime novels. Before The Scarlet Letter no American writer understood the values of time, tragedy, or womanhood well enough to create a woman in fiction”. (qtd. in Hawthorne’s Tragic Vision 4,5) Though there are many critics that feel the novel is about Reverend Dimmesdale’s internal struggle with his adulterous sin, there are also those who feel The Scarlett Letter centered on Hester, and her triumph as a woman f her own mind in a male dominated era (Nina Baym 51). The Scarlet Letter can easily be viewed as an early feminist work by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who created a story which exemplifies Hester Prynne as a strong female character living with her choices, moral or immoral, and also as the protagonist. He also presented Hester’s daughter, Pearl, as an intelligent female, and as the positive, beautiful outcome of a tragic circumstance. He went on to portray man as imperfect, through the characters Dimmesdale and Chillingworth.
Hawthorne established his female character as the triumphant one, and accomplished something that, during his time, authors dared not attempt. In the end, Hester dies alone having outlived her male counterparts, but we sense that she has lived a full life, able to ascend to heaven knowing that she has fulfilled not only her duties, but also her love, ensuring that her daughter will continue her legacy of love, truth, and honor. Works Cited Baym, Nina. Plot in Hawthorne’s Romances,” Ruined Eden of the Present, edited by G. R. Thompson and Virgil L. Lokke, Purdue University Press, 1981, pp. 49-70. Duyckinck, Evert. “The Scarlet Letter (Critical Overview). ” Notes on Novels. Answers Corporation, 2006. Answers. com 26 Jul. 2009. Ellis, Barbara. “Some observations about Hawthorne’s women”. WILLA 2 (1993): 13-18 Male, Roy R. Hawthorne’s Tragic Vision 4-5. New York: Norton & Co.
Inc. ,1957. “Nathaniel Hawthorne”. Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2009. Encarta Encyclopedia. Ushistory. org. “Puritan Life”. US History Online Textbook. 2009. 20 July 2009. Van Kirk, Susan. CliffsNotes on the Scarlet Letter. Cliffsnotes. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2009. 18 Jul 2009. Woodberry, George E. “The Scarlet Letter and Rappaccini’s Daughter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne”. The Harvard classics shelf of fiction 10. 1. New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1917. Bartleby. com: Great Books Online.